Business & Economy

Omicron empties shelves at US supermarkets

By Susana Samhan

Washington, Jan 14 (EFE).- No fruit, no meat, no cleaning products: shoppers at some supermarkets in the United States are encountering empty shelves as the Omicron variant drives another surge in the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to staff shortages and aggravating existing problems with the supply chain.

At one store here in Washington, the produce section looks like the aftermath of a hurricane and the meat department has no chicken.

But the shelves at another supermarket just a few kilometers away in the heart of the nation’s capital are well stocked.

The current situation is the result of trends that go back to the early days of the pandemic, according to Katie Denis, vice president of research at the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), which represents companies in the consumer packaged-goods industry.

Supply chain difficulties over the last 22 months have left producer with no margin to deal with “disruptions” such as winter storms or the Omicron wave, she told Efe.

Right now, Denis said, the problem is “a scarcity of labor, not a scarcity of food.”

Executives at CBA member firms say the industry has 118,000 unfilled positions and only 1,600 new workers were hired last month, Denis said.

Some of those vacancies can be attributed to the phenomenon of millions of people quitting their jobs in what has come to be called the “Great Resignation.”

Figures from the Department of Labor show that in November alone, 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs.

Previous pandemic waves have been accompanied by shortages, but they were generally localized and of limited duration, allowing supermarkets to adjust supply and distribution arrangements, Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, told Efe.

The Omicron variant, however, is “impacting the entire United States all at once. So many US grocery stores and food producers are dealing with employees being out sick, or being asked to quarantine,” he said.

Penfield said that supermarkets could be operating normally by the end of next month, provided that “we have no new variant” and no “catastrophic” weather events.

The CBA’s Denis called for action from US political leaders to address the crisis.

In the short term, she said, the government must provide “essential” support to workers in the form of guaranteed access to Covid-19 tests and greater clarity on the question of quarantine.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently shortened the length of self-isolation recommended for infected people from 10 days to five, while leaving it up to individuals to decide whether to take another Covid-19 test before returning to work.

Beyond the immediate crisis, “the federal government has a critical role” in boosting transportation capacity and creating ways to detect problems in the supply chain before they result in shortages, Denis said.

Detected in November in South Africa, the much more contagious but ostensibly less lethal Omicron variant is driving a global surge in infections.

In the United States, which leads the world in both deaths, 847,000, and confirmed cases, 64.5 million, more than 5.5 million new Covid-19 infections were detected in the last week. EFE


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